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Tackling the Unequal Burdens of Health Disparities

October 5, 2012

Cynthia LeBlanc, Ed.D, is national volunteer board chair

While cancer strikes people from all walks of life, some groups have disproportionately higher mortality and incidence rates.  Part of the American Cancer Society’s commitment to saving lives includes addressing the unequal burden of cancer experienced within certain communities. We believe that all individuals regardless of race, socioeconomic circumstances, or insurance status, deserve equal access to quality health care. We partner with community health workers and culturally diverse volunteers to provide culturally and linguistically appropriate outreach and education to empower and mobilize the community to access prevention and early detection resources. In addition, we collaborate with community health systems that ensure access to cancer screening resources and follow-up care.

Last week, I had the pleasure of touring several communities in South Carolina, North Carolina, Virginia, Washington, DC, and Maryland where important work is being done to save lives from cancer.  Much of the work I witnessed is made possible through the generous support of the Walmart Foundation. In fact, the foundation has committed $4 million to support a total of 41 grants to disparities-related work through the Society.

In South Carolina, I met a team from the state’s Best Chance Network, which works to get socio-economically disadvantaged women screened for breast and cervical cancer.  I also dined with the volunteer leaders of the Society’s annual African American Men’s Health Forum held in Columbia, SC.  Wendell Price and Dr. Gary Bell have worked for several years to address cancer disparities facing black men. From there, my journey took me to the very rural Appalachia region of North Carolina.  I saw first-hand that those in rural communities face many health-related challenges, including disparities in cancer rates.  That’s where the work of the Society’s Community Health Advisors (CHAs) is critical.  These specially trained community members form a grassroots army aimed at saving lives from cancer through very effective community-based education approaches.  In addition to the CHAs, I had the opportunity to speak with leaders in the medical community there and gained an appreciation for how impactful our partnerships with them can be.

While in the Baltimore – Washington, DC area I met student volunteers at Morgan State University who are implementing the American Cancer Society’s Active For Life program on their campus. In the nation’s capital, I got a glimpse of the work we’re doing with the Mexican Consulate on the program “Ventanilles de Salud,” which reaches Hispanic audiences with key cancer interventions and education.

The last leg of my trip took me to the Southeastern Virginia, where the city of Portsmouth has one of the highest breast cancer mortality rates in the country. I attended the community’s annual American Cancer Society Making Strides Against Breast Cancer walk where I met another group of community health advisors who are working to encourage larger numbers of African American women in their community to get recommended mammograms.  While there, I attended services at Portsmouth’s Ebenezer Baptist Church and Grove Baptist Church, both of which are active in the Society’s work in what we call the “Portsmouth Partnership to Beat Breast Cancer.”  I also had the opportunity to recognize Grove as a flagship sponsor of our Making Strides Against Breast Cancer initiative.

It was inspiring to personally experience some of the incredible work the American Cancer Society is doing to address disparities.  It warmed my heart to see passionate people coming together and working to save lives in their community.  I’m proud that similar work is being done all across the country. Many thanks to the Walmart Foundation for helping us further our mission to eliminate disparities and save lives.

The Most Effective Breast Cancer-Fighting Organization in the World

September 28, 2012

W. Phil Evans, M.D., F.A.C.R., is the national volunteer president of the American Cancer Society and director of the Center for Breast Care at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center. 

As a radiologist specializing in breast imaging and an American Cancer Society volunteer for many years, I have a unique perspective on life-saving early detection with mammography and the extraordinary role of the Society in breast cancer care. Over the years, I have had to tell many women that they have breast cancer, and the Society has always been there for them. Today, one of every two women newly diagnosed with breast cancer reaches out to the Society for help and support. In every community, we provide free information and services–when and where it’s needed.

Doctors know that when found early rather than late, breast cancer is much easier to treat, and the chance of survival is significantly greater. The Society has helped translate this knowledge into action that has improved and saved many lives by increasing public awareness of breast cancer, developing screening guidelines, and providing clinician education programs. For years, the Society has recommended that women begin screening at age 40 with yearly mammography and clinical breast exam.  Largely due to screening and improved treatments, the breast cancer death rate has decreased by over 30% since 1990 and will approach a 40% reduction by 2015.

Although screening mammography is very effective in reducing breast cancer deaths, it does have limitations. Mammography detects most but not all breast cancers early.  A clinical examination and breast awareness are part of the screening process for women at average breast cancer risk.  If you have a strong family history of breast and/or ovarian cancer, genetic testing may be appropriate to determine if you have a gene mutation that places you and possibly a member of your family at a higher risk of developing breast cancer.  Additional imaging with ultrasound and/or MRI in addition to mammography may be recommended for those at high risk.

While we do not yet know how to prevent breast cancer, research supported by the Society suggests how a woman may reduce her breast cancer risk by:

  • Maintaining a healthy body weight throughout life,
  • Engaging in moderate to vigorous physical activity, and
  • Reducing alcohol intake to no more than one drink per day.

For women diagnosed with breast cancer, the Society is ready to help around the clock in communities nationwide. The National Cancer Information Center (1-800-227-2345 or cancer.org) is staffed 24/7 with specialists who answer calls and e-mails and monitor chat room discussions.  They assist patients and caregivers with information requests and service referrals.  We provide emotional support for the newly diagnosed both in person and online, transportation assistance to and from treatment, free lodging if treatment is far from home, free wigs and help with treatment-related side effects, and tips, tools, and resources for nutritional needs during treatment, recovery, and survivorship.

The Society passionately fights back against breast cancer through Making Strides Against Breast Cancer –the largest network of breast cancer events in the nation, uniting more than 270 communities to fund the fight. The walks are 3-5 miles and the walkers raised more than $60 million last year to find cures and save lives. In addition, through the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network (ACS CAN), our nonprofit, nonpartisan, advocacy affiliate, breast cancer remains a top priority for our nation’s lawmakers. Through ACS CAN, we support federal legislation that will increase access to treatment for breast cancer patients and quality of life for survivors. Moreover, ACS CAN has lobbied Congress for continued support the National Breast and Cervical Cancer Early Detection Program (NBCCEDP). This program helps low income, uninsured, and underinsured women obtain access to screening and treatment and has provided over 10 million screening exams to four million women, finding more than 52,000 breast cancers. Finally, ACS CAN urges Congress to robustly fund breast cancer research that will improve prevention, detection, treatment, and survivorship.

The American Cancer Society has played a role in nearly every major breast cancer breakthrough in recent history and will continue the work until the disease is defeated.

The UICC World Cancer Congress

August 24, 2012

By John R. Seffrin, chief executive officer

This coming week I’ll be in Montréal, where I am so proud to be representing the American Cancer Society at the 2012 UICC World Cancer Congress.  Society staff, volunteers, and executives will spend several days working with other health leaders from around the world to keep cancer at the forefront of the global agenda. This biannual meeting comes at a time when we’re seeing a good deal of progress in laying the groundwork for a coordinated global response to the rising burden of cancer and other noncommunicable diseases (NCDs). But we must do more.

Despite our efforts, cancer incidence is growing globally. There are about 12 million new cancer diagnoses around the world annually, and that number is expected to grow to more than 22 million in 2030, with the greatest burden falling on low- and middle- income countries. This tsunami of cancer will devastate the developing world in the next 20 years if we do not act. I believe we have a moral imperative to address this challenge now, and efforts such as the World Cancer Congress and last year’s United Nations High Level Meeting on Noncommunicable Diseases represent our best chance to act.

The World Cancer Congress brings together the international cancer control community to find solutions to reduce the impact of cancer on communities around the world. It is hosted by the Union of International Cancer Control (UICC), a long-time partner of the Society in the global fight against cancer, and an organization I served as volunteer president from 2002-2006.

The Society will take a highly active and visible role this coming week. We will emphasize the need for continued support and momentum in translating the benefits of knowledge gained through research and practice to those affected by cancer around the world. We must share what we have learned, and increase access to prevention, control, and palliative care.

Other highlights of our involvement:

  • Our experts will address diet and cancer risk, access to pain medications, and ways to use social media to educate people.
  • We will introduce delegates to the Global Relay For Life program and demonstrate how it can benefit individual communities, as well as make a global impact in the fight against cancer.
  • We are leading a session on the power of advocacy.
  • There will be an all-day training for Society grantees, where we will share best practices and  identify opportunities for action.
  • The “Global Village” expo will feature a large Society booth at which conference attendees can learn about our global work, share stories about the fight against cancer through a video booth, and sign up for our global social communities.

I will be tweeting updates throughout the week from @AmerCancerCEO. More information about the conference can be found at http://www.worldcancercongress.org

A Special Milestone for Our Longest Serving Volunteer

August 8, 2012

By John R. Seffrin, chief executive officer  

With our mix of grassroots events, patient and family services and support, and our decades-long investment in cutting edge research, the American Cancer Society is truly the embodiment of, “Think globally, act locally.” And nearly all of our work is made possible by our volunteers.

Each of our more than three million volunteers is essential to our mission of creating a world with less cancer and more birthdays, but today I want to honor a woman who has been part of the Society longer than anybody else, and whose contributions have helped make the American Cancer Society what it is today. Margot Freudenberg, the American Cancer Society’s longest serving volunteer, and founder of Hope Lodge, is celebrating her 105th birthday today.

In 1970, Mrs. Freudenberg, who began volunteering in the 1940s, founded the first American Cancer Society Hope Lodge in Charleston, South Carolina. Hope Lodge provides a free, temporary place to stay when cancer patients and their caregivers have to travel far from home for treatment. Today there are 31 American Cancer Society Hope Lodge locations in 22 states, and more are planned. By providing free lodging, the Hope Lodge network saves cancer patients tens of millions of dollars a year, and makes more and better treatment options accessible for people, no matter where they live in the world. With a major financial burden removed, Hope Lodge guests truly can focus on getting well.

Mrs. Freudenberg’s personal story is as remarkable as her immeasurable contribution to making life easier for cancer patients and their families. She was born and raised in Germany, where she trained as a physical therapist, married, and started her family. She and her husband and young son endured the Nazi era until they escaped to England in 1939. They arrived in Charleston in 1940, where they were welcomed by Margot’s sister, who had settled there.

In a time when it was not usual for women to found businesses, she established her own physical therapy practice. It was also in Charleston in 1940 that Mrs. Freudenberg began volunteering for the American Cancer Society and other organizations. She has said that community service was her way of repaying the kindness and help her family received in leaving Germany and starting over in a new country. On behalf of the entire American Cancer Society, I am so grateful she felt that way. Happy birthday, Margot.

To learn more about visiting or supporting the American Cancer Society Hope Lodge Network, visit www.cancer.org/hopelodge, or call 1-800-227-2345.

My Time at the Essence Music Festival 2012

July 12, 2012

By Cynthia M. LeBlanc, Ed.D, national volunteer board chair, American Cancer Society.

During my 25 years (and counting) as an American Cancer Society volunteer I have had some wonderful and memorable moments. My experience last week attending the Essence Music Festival in New Orleans was one of the most rewarding.

Hundreds of thousands of people – of all ages – from across the country attended the four-day Festival this year, which is billed as the largest gathering of African Americans in celebration of black music. There are empowerment sessions, exhibitions and of course, concerts. This year Aretha Franklin and Mary J. Blige were among the many performers.

As one of the sponsors of the Festival, the American Cancer Society hosted an exhibition booth, which provided a great opportunity to interact with people, hearing their stories about cancer’s impact and sharing tips on how to reduce cancer risk.

It was gratifying to see so much interest in the activities, videos, and giveaway items at our booth, especially from people who stand to directly benefit from the information we were sharing. But the chance to meet so many people is what really made this a memorable experience. Some thanked me for the Society’s contribution to a world with less cancer and more birthdays, while others offered congratulations on my being the first African American woman to serve as national volunteer board chair. Many shared their cancer stories.

I especially recall my interactions with one young man who was about 25 years old. He was concerned about his 51-year-old mom, whom he had been urging to get a mammogram, especially as she had lost her own mother to breast cancer. He asked me what more he could do. We decided together that he should speak with his mothers’ pastor to ask if the pastor would intervene. I also told him that because of her age, she needed to get a colonoscopy, too.

Another man I met had been diagnosed a few months earlier with prostate cancer. Later this man was invited onstage along with a group of other survivors. The crowd acknowledged their fight, and sang an empowering song about strength and being a survivor. This session concluded with a “Soul Train Line” with each of the participants sharing who they were dancing for. Seeing this was incredibly moving.

Moments like these, and many more helped me understand just how much our presence at the Festival was noted and appreciated. I felt so proud to represent the Society. My fellow volunteers and our staff partners were all wonderful, and were truly committed to the mission of the Society. They worked tirelessly and creatively to bring our message to the population that has the shortest survival rates and the highest mortality rates for most cancers. And the message was warmly received.

I am already looking ahead with renewed passion to even more great things we can accomplish in the future.

A Survivor’s Story

May 31, 2012

W. Phil Evans, M.D. is the national volunteer president of the American Cancer Society

Most authorities consider a person to be a cancer survivor from the time of his or her diagnosis through the balance of life. According to the American Cancer Society there are nearly 12 million cancer survivors in the United States today.  Approximately two-thirds of those diagnosed with cancer between 2001 and 2007 lived five years past the time of diagnosis, up from about half just three decades before. These numbers tell the good news about the progress being made against cancer, but what does it really mean to be a cancer survivor? 

In my profession as a diagnostic radiologist specializing in breast imaging, I look for signs of breast cancer on mammography, ultrasound, and MRI exams, trying to find it early, when it is most treatable. When cancer is found, I am usually the first physician to tell the patient, and over the years I have done this many times. Listening and being sensitive and empathetic has always been my first concern when delivering the unwanted news. 

Sixteen years ago, when undergoing medical testing for an unrelated problem, I was found to have kidney cancer. At the time, I had been an ACS volunteer for more than 12 years. My involvement began because of my passion for saving lives from breast cancer. It never crossed my mind that one day a physician would tell me that I had cancer. Fortunately, even though the cancer was aggressive, it was found early and was relatively small, but I did have surgery to remove my left kidney. My doctors were wonderful, and I am thrilled to wake up each day and to celebrate another birthday each year.

For me, being diagnosed with cancer and going through treatment was truly a life-changing experience, because for the first time I totally understood the gift of life. I appreciated my family and friends more than ever. I could fully empathize with my patients and understand in a personal way the impact of a cancer diagnosis as never before.

My hope on National Cancer Survivors Day is that as your ACS President, I can do my part to help increase the number of lives saved from cancer. That means many more cancer survivors and many, many more birthdays with those we love.

Celebrating 99 Years of Saving Lives

May 22, 2012

By John R. Seffrin, PhD, chief executive officer

At the American Cancer Society, we know that every birthday is a reason to celebrate. That’s why today – our 99th birthday as an organization – we’re especially pleased to celebrate the lifesaving progress we’ve made together.

We have definitely come a long way since the American Cancer Society was founded in 1913. Then, cancer was an almost certain death sentence. The disease was shrouded in mystery and carried a powerful stigma that meant people diagnosed often kept their true condition a secret. Treatment focused mainly on pain management and quality of life – and could include anything from morphine and champagne to carriage rides in the park.

How very far we have come.

Today, the majority of people survive cancer – and many thrive. The number of cancer survivors in the United States is rising steadily – and by 2008 neared an incredible 12 million people. A disease that once was spoken of only in whispers is today loudly proclaimed on everything from T-shirts to television programs. And most importantly, there is a powerful spirit of hope that underlies the cancer fight – hope not just for dropping cancer death rates but for the true elimination of this disease as a major health threat.

In just a few days, I celebrate a “birthday” of my own – my 40th year working with the American Cancer Society, 20 of those as chief executive. I have never been prouder to be at the helm of this great organization – nor have I been as optimistic about the future of the cancer fight. I believe the hopeful side of cancer has truly never been more hopeful.

Today, we have opportunities we once could only dream of. While the American Cancer Society has been an important part of more than 15 years of decline in cancer death rates in the U.S. and more than 1 million cancer deaths avoided since rates began to fall in the early 1990s, I believe we can and must do more to further this fight in the coming years.

Today, we know that about half of cancer deaths are preventable. Thanks in part to the $3.8 billion the American Cancer Society has invested in cancer research over the years, we know more today about major cancer risk factors and their impact. We know about one-third of cancer deaths in the U.S. each year can be attributed to poor diet and physical inactivity, while one-third are caused by tobacco use.

We know more about preventing, detecting, and treating cancer than ever before, and are armed with the tools and resources to do so. And we know where and how to intervene to help save more lives in the future, especially around the world as the majority of the cancer burden shifts to low- and middle-income nations. But we have a long way to go before we can confidently say we’re doing all we can – and applying all we know.

We also know we cannot finish this fight alone. As we approach our 100th birthday celebration next year, we at the American Cancer Society need your help now more than ever to continue this lifesaving progress.

This month is a terrific time to get involved in a Relay For Life® event in your community, a movement that unites people in more than 6,000 communities around the world to fight cancer. Or help us celebrate 99 years of saving lives by making a commitment to improve your own health – whether by quitting smoking, getting active, eating better, or scheduling that health check-up you’ve been putting off.

Each day of our 99 years, thanks to people like you, we have gotten closer to a world with less cancer – and more birthdays. Here’s to celebrating that progress today – and to one day soon making that vision a reality.

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